In the first of a series, asylum campaigner John Grayson examines the Direct Provision (DP) system for asylum seekers in Ireland. Part-two will examine the private companies involved in providing services under DP.
‘The Minister for Justice has made an outspoken attack on bogus asylum-seeking and “political correctness” at the Oireachtas Justice Committee. Michael McDowell said the patience of the Irish people would be very tested if they knew the “cock and bull” stories being given by people looking for asylum … “I would prefer to interview these people at the airport, but the UN insists that I go through due procedure,” said Mr McDowell.’ (RTE News, 5 May 2005)
‘People caught up in the direct provision system are being denied hope by the State and forced to live in a system which is worse than prison … Former judge Dr. Bryan McMahon said anyone forced to live in a system that denied them the right to work or study and determined almost every aspect of their life without any indication as to when their circumstances might change “would go mad”. Some of them said to me: “I would prefer to be in jail because I would have a definite sentence and I would know when I was getting out.’” (Dr McMahon chaired the first official Irish government inquiry into Direct Provision in 2014)
Direct Provision in Tralee
Christine looked frail and ill but she smiled briefly as she sat down at the large table in the meeting room of the centre. I told her I was from the South Yorkshire Migration and Asylum Action Group in South Yorkshire ‘I was in Rotherham for a while, six years ago in asylum housing’, she said. ‘But they made me come back here because I had been fingerprinted in Ireland. I have been here in Tralee ever since.’
Christine, originally from East Africa, described the regime in the centre, Johnston Marina, a disused hotel:
‘We are not allowed to cook or even do our own washing. My clothes are ruined in the industrial washers they use in there. I am hungry most of the time. I am vegetarian but they will not cook me food I can eat. All the staff are white, from Eastern Europe I think, they simply do not treat the single Black women, like me, fairly. Even fruit is given out in a racist way, the best fruit goes to the white women, then the families with children, both Black and white – then us, we end up with apples and pears. The staff decide how much is given out and there is by the end of the week often leftovers of the best fruit which is overripe – they then put it out on the tables for all of us. The heating often fails and we have no hot water. It is not a good place to live.’
Ten years ago, when there were 40 women and 45 children in the Johnston Marina centre where Christine lives, there was a hunger strike to protest about conditions. In 2013 the Tralee International Resource Centre was one of the sponsors of the national ‘End Institutionalised Living’ protests held throughout the country, which included a demonstration in Tralee town centre.
In Tralee, talking to Shahidah, Christine and Theresa, a support worker at the Resource Centre, it was obvious that the suicide of a Korean woman in Kinsale Road DP centre in Cork on the 23 August was still affecting them. The woman, a lone parent, had been in the centre about a year with her six-year-old son. Lucky Khambule, spokesman for the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) who had himself spent time in Kinsale Road, said ‘She had on occasions been to the doctor and she was evidently a quiet, sad person.’
Racism in rural Ireland
‘What many in human rights organisations suspect (or are afraid to admit openly) is that Irish society knows full well about the system of direct provision, the vast majority of the population could not care less. In fact, the vast majority may even want a harsher system.’ (Liam Thornton and Carl O’Brien, ‘Closing Our Eyes: Irish Society and Direct Provision’, 8 October 2013, humanrights.ie)
I was staying with Shahidah and John, both social justice campaigners in Kerry. The couple have lived near Tralee for over ten years, during which time Shahidah has heard racist remarks aimed at her when she walked around town: ‘Some years ago someone in town wound down his car window and threw a glass bottle at me’. John told me ‘I think racism is growing in Ireland since the Crash as people get poorer, even the traditional discrimination against the Traveller community is getting worse. DP centres are often in rundown hotels, and you hear politicians and people in the media saying, “Why are asylum seekers getting hotels, whilst Irish homeless people are on the streets”. People have no idea of what goes on in the DP centres. Tourists actually stand and take pictures of Johnston Marina and its thatched roof annexe.’
I had talked to Charles earlier in the international resource centre about his life in the Atlas Centre, the men’s DP centre in Tralee. Charles was a surgeon from the Middle East, and he had just heard that he had been granted leave to remain in Ireland. Charles had been shocked at the racism he had met with in Tralee. ‘I volunteered to help with local work with poor people, and had to give it up, people simply insulted me and my background. In the centre where I have lived for over a year, every single weekend when the pubs shut a gang of young men fill the street outside chanting “Go Home”, and throw things at the windows. The police do nothing.’
Charles had prepared for our meeting by writing a detailed list of points he wanted to raise with me.
Charles told me of his despair at ‘feeling useless, defenceless, and confused’, and admitted he had felt suicidal at times. ‘In there, time turns against you, you feel ashamed of living in Direct Provision. The racism makes you feel you have no respect in society even amongst other asylum seekers. Other people in the centre suffered racism and abused people like me as a defence mechanism, facing racism by harming good people.’ He was worried about his professional skills as a surgeon deteriorating with his forced absence from practice. ‘We may be banned from working but they should allow volunteering for professional people, it is about more than just the money.’ Now he was leaving Direct Provision he was obviously very anxious about facing ‘real life’ again.
Direct Provision and dispersal
DP centres are not closed detention centres, new asylum seekers ‘decide’ whether they go into the DP centres and are free to leave. In 2015 there were an estimated 7,937 people in the Irish asylum system, 45 per cent living in DP accommodation, and 55 per cent living ‘outside Direct Provision‘.
The DP system commenced in April 2000, offering asylum seekers bed and board accommodation, and an allowance of €19.10 a week per adult, with an additional €9.60 a week per child. The system of DP also provides health care through the medical card scheme, and education up to the age of 18 for children of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are not entitled to any other form of welfare payment. They are not allowed to work, and Ireland is the only EU state with a complete prohibition on working. If they decide not to stay in the centres they become destitute and homeless.
Asylum seekers in DP are dispersed throughout Ireland, often in disused holiday camps, hotels, convents, hostels and caravan sites. Many of the DP centres are in remote rural or coastal areas. In these areas, the cost of living is often higher than in Dublin and the €19.10 buys less, and the value of the payment has been further eroded by inflation over the seventeen years it has remained unchanged.
Direct Provision: ‘an agonizing and wasted existence’ – ’a form of apartheid’
Echoing Charles and many others who have looked at or directly experienced DP, in 2012, researcher Zoe O’Reilly after interviewing residents, described their life in DP as ‘an agonizing and wasted existence.’
‘They wait in an institutional limbo for a final decision on their claims. Fed and housed through the “direct provision” system, people are kept on the margins of society, unable to access employment or education, and forced to live a “life without choice” … They are simultaneously inside and outside: inside a system which controls their everyday life and decisions, and yet kept outside of mainstream society, prevented from integrating through a series of deliberate measures’. 
By December 2000, 62 DP centres were operating, increasing to 84 centres consisting of nine reception centres and 75 accommodation centres. The first report on the system of direct provision in July 2001 for the Irish Refugee Council and the Combat Poverty Agency, Beyond the Pale: Asylum Seeking Children and Social Inclusion in Ireland, raised serious concerns about the system. The recommendations were direct and damning:
- Direct provision should be abolished
- Direct provision fosters poverty and exclusion within Irish communities. Asylum seekers on direct provision experience poverty to a greater extent than other categories of asylum seeker. Asylum seekers in ‘direct provision’ had household incomes which fell below the 20 percent poverty line. The extreme poverty experienced by asylum-seeking children in “direct provision” is a direct outcome of current asylum seeker policy.
- Those who have been accommodated under direct provision are subject to a form of apartheid whereby they are compelled to live apart from the majority community without the social and material support structures to interact with the native population. 
As the number of DP centres declined there were repeated reports criticising the DP system, most of them largely ignored by the government, and some legal challenges. As far as the government was concerned the deterrent system was working – fewer and fewer asylum seekers were coming to Ireland. There were 11,598 asylum applications in 2002, 940 in 2012. By September 2014 the Irish Times published a leaked memo from the Justice Ministry setting out the policy. Their headlines read: ‘Minister says system is “inhumane”‘ but … ‘State fears alternative to direct provision will attract asylum seekers’.
The reports on the ‘inhumane’ system had grown, together with hunger strikes and demonstrations by people in DP centres throughout Ireland in 2014. The Irish Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, in her report in 2013 on a family in DP, estimated that there were around 1,820 children under eighteen in the centres (around 38 per cent of residents) and 640 lone parents. O’Reilly described the DP system as ‘a collective failure of a republic which needs to re-engage with what ought to be its core values.’ She said under the current asylum process ‘an entire early childhood, virtually an entire adolescence can be spent in direct provision accommodation’.
A seminar at the Tralee International Resource Centre in June 2015 on ‘Children Living in Direct Provision’ considered the Irish Refugee Council’s report, Counting the Cost (2014), which stated that the average time spent in DP was three years, with some people waiting as long as seven years for a decision. As the seminar flyer pointed out ‘With 35% of children in DP under the age of 4yrs, the DP way of life is all they know.’
In 2014, the first ever official state investigation into the system was launched when the Irish government set up a Working Group under a retired judge, Bryan McMahon, responding to the protests across Irish DP centres. They were not given a remit to consider the ending of the DP system, only reforming it. The group reported in June 2015, and amongst their list of 173 recommendations, was an increase in the DP allowances to €38.74 for adults and €29.80 for children. 
On 7 May 2015, Pádraig MacLochlainn TD, Chairman of the Oireachtas (Parliamentary) Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions, introduced the committee’s damning report on DP, dealing with the lack of rights of residents to appeal to the Ombudsman system:
‘This report on the Direct Provision System is, I believe, a “canary in the mine” moment … This report to the Dáil and Seanad makes it clear to both Houses of the Oireachtas that the Direct Provision system is not fit for purpose.’
The Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) figures for June 2017 estimate that there are still 4,691 people in thirty-two DP centres across 16 counties in Ireland. There are 1,248 children under 18 in the centres, 472 of these children are under four years of age.
Resisting and exposing DP
In recent years, academic activists, journalists, a tiny number of politicians, and above all people forced to endure the DP system have begun to expose the system in media campaigns and direct actions.
In August 2014, during a hunger strike protest at Mount Trenchard DP centre near Foynes in County Limerick, three of the protesters said they had been waiting ten years for their asylum applications to be processed. Another resident said he had been in the asylum system for the past 14 years. The local Doras Luimní asylum rights organisation said, ‘some residents have been living at the hostel for the past 12 years’ in living conditions that have been described as ‘overcrowded and inhumane’ which see ‘eight male adults of different nationalities sharing a room, contribut[ing] to an environment that exacerbates the volatility of the centre.’
In April 2015, after further protests at Mount Trenchard over ‘poor food, broken windows, regular outbreaks of fighting’, Jonathan Muhwezi, a resident, told the Limerick Leader that ‘Foynes is called Guantanamo Bay … where they send you for punishment.’
Newbridge Asylum Support Group
In December, I spoke with two women, Hope and May, who had been in the Eyre Powell hotel, the DP centre in Newbridge in Co. Kildare, not far from Dublin. Hope was from Zimbabwe and had been in the DP system for seven years. She had leave to remain but, like many people in the centres, she could find neither employment nor housing. In July 2016, the Irish Refugee Council published research indicating that in 2015, several months after getting their official papers, 679 people remained in Direct Provision. Hope said that Co. Kildare was the best place for a refugee to try to move on – there were advice services there. ‘The real problem is racism in employment. I am getting interviews but they obviously don’t want to employ a Black woman.’ Hope told me of all the people still in DP after many years. ‘I knew a man from Rwanda, he will have been in DP for ten years, this year.’
Both women were activists in the Newbridge Asylum Support Group and had been involved in protests in 2012. The protest had been raised in the Dáil by the South Kildare TD Jack Wall, who spoke of ‘a detailed written complaint listing twelve areas of concern, signed by a number of residents, sent to the manager of the Eyre Powell centre through the support group. The concerns revolved around food, hygiene and the attitude of management towards residents.‘
May, from Eastern Europe, who had also lived in Eyre Powell, had her second child in the DP system. She told me of her ‘mental stress over years living in overcrowded conditions in one room. “I was always worried about my children”.’ May’s comments about her children in the DP centres are echoed by the findings of a government survey of 110 children in DP centres completed in 2015.
Children described their accommodation as ‘overcrowded’ and ‘dirty’ and the direct provision system as ‘not fair’, ‘not safe’, and many spoke about older men ‘taking over’ the TV and recreation rooms. ‘There are loads of men bothering us’, said one, while another commented: ‘There is so many men, and . . . they look creepy at you.’ The diets were described as ‘horrible and disgusting’ and ‘unhealthy’ by older groups, and as ‘always the same’ and ‘the food has no taste’ by the younger children, with several expressing the wish their mother could cook for them.
The Irish government refused to publish the survey until forced to do so this year, on 18 July, as a result of a FOI request from the Irish Times.
Are cracks appearing in the Irish deterrent asylum system?
Unusually, over the past few months news of Ireland’s reception policy for refugees has been filtering over to the UK. On 30 May, the Irish Supreme Court ruled that banning asylum seekers from working was unconstitutional. The Irish Times reported that:
‘The seven judge court unanimously agreed the absolute ban was ‘in principle’ unconstitutional but has adjourned making any formal orders for six months to allow the legislature consider how to address the situation.’ (Irish Times, 30 May 2017)
Then on 14 June, Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister), Leo Varadkar, announced an increase of €2.50 per week for adults and €6 per week for children to benefit more than 4,000 adults and children living in Ireland’s accommodation for asylum seekers, the Direct Provision (DP) centres. The rate for children will rise from €15.60 to €21.60 per week and for adults from €19.10 to €21.60 per week from August. The adult support rate remarkably had remained at € 19.10 for seventeen years ever since the DP Centres were set up in 2000.
‘We really feel insulted by the newly-elected Taoiseach, who seems to have no understanding whatsoever about what we have gone through in direct provision for 17 years. The Taoiseach said that these offensively minuscule increases would give asylum seekers more disposable income. If our situation wasn’t so serious this would be a joke. We were not consulted on this, no one asked us what we needed. We are furious that people think that €2.50 or €6 will do anything to address the damage caused to our lives by direct provision.’
Cracks may be appearing in the DP system but deportations increase
The new Irish International Protection Act (IPA) which came into operation in December 2016, replaced the extremely time-consuming process for asylum seekers: first claiming asylum through the ORAC (Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner), then appealing a negative decision to the Refugee Appeals Tribunal (RAT); and finally, if unsuccessful, making a claim for subsidiary protection to the Minister for Justice, for example, claiming that they cannot be returned safely to their country.
All these stages meant long delays, often of years, spent in DP. In 2015 there were ‘approximately 1,000 people involved in judicial review proceedings relating to the various stages in the system, of whom 66 per cent have been in the system for more than five years.’ The new law, which was designed to streamline the application process for asylum seekers to reduce waiting times for decisions, seems to have stalled with the revelation earlier this year that 4,000 cases had been handed on to the Office for International Protection from the previous system, and that these would be given precedence over new claims.
The IPA also increased the State’s powers to enforce deportation orders. Lucky Khambule, on 19 June, described the rise in deportation proceedings since the introduction of the IPA as ‘alarming’. The introduction of the IPA also seems to signal a new period of asylum refusals. Figures up to May this year show that only 101 people have been granted ‘permission to remain’, compared to 532 in total over 2016. Since 2007, 23,506 people have applied for asylum status in Ireland, and the average rate of refusal is 86 per cent. Just 3,285 asylum seekers have been granted official asylum protection in Ireland in the past ten years.
As Anne Mulhall and Gavan Titley said in 2014, DP provides:
‘a holding pen where people are kept for efficient deportation … for protesters, who live with its constant threat in institutions designed to facilitate their removal, an end to deportation is the most important of their demands.’